The Advanced Degree Immigration Arbitrage Opportunity

Indian programmers in Bangalore on Sept. 21, 2012

Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

In my first read of the Octogang’s bipartisan immigration reform framework, I thought that making high-skill reform conditioned on receipt of a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics advanced degree from an American institution was too restrictive.

I stand by that. There are lots of valuable skills outside the STEM fields, lots of valuable STEM workers who don’t have advanced degrees—Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College, where he studies, among other things, calligraphy—and lots of good institutions of higher education in foreign countries. On the other hand, you can read this as a very lax provision. What it does, in essence, is create a huge incentive for foreign-born college graduates to apply to master’s programs in STEM fields. Or looked at the other way, it gives accredited American universities a license to print money by launching foreigner-friendly master’s programs in STEM fields. If an Indian computer programmer can increase his salary sixfold by moving to the United States, then why wouldn’t he take out $50,000 in loans to obtain a master’s degree in computer science from some random American university? The programs would have to be selective enough to avoid totally discrediting the university sponsoring them, but there’s absolutely no need for them to engage in any useful educating whatsoever for the value proposition to be enormous.